Most young actresses bristle at the thought of being typecast in girlfriend or wife roles. Annabella Sciorra makes the most of them.
So far, the New York native has played a bride, two wives and two girlfriends in the movies. Par for the course in an industry that even Meryl Streep complains fails to provide enough interesting roles - or enough roles, period - for women.But Sciorra doesn't grouse about the situation. Instead, she carefully chooses interesting projects - "True Love," "Internal Affairs," "Reversal of Fortune" and Spike Lee's upcoming "Jungle Fever." Or, she adds everything she can to underwritten roles - "Cadillac Man's" wrongly accused adulteress, an angry cop's neglected love interest in the new action comedy "The Hard Way."
Sciorra has a way of drawing an audience's attention away, sometimes momentarily but always memorably, from flashier male costars. And hers have included some of the most powerful actors in the business: Andy Garcia, Richard Gere, Robin Williams, Ron Silver, Jeremy Irons, Michael J. Fox and James Woods.
"I just try to do good work," Sciorra said. "I don't have a choice, at this point, of doing all the brilliant roles that are around - however few there may be. I'm just trying to mold a career in this business. It's what I've always wanted to do, and I've finally gotten to a point where people are saying, `OK, we'll pay you to act.'
"As long as it's not homophobic or misogynistic or horribly violent, there's nothing wrong with most of the roles that are out there. I don't find a need to complain about them."
Sciorra does, however, find a need to put a lot of effort into making some of them work. Take her role of Susan (no last name) in "The Hard Way." A single mother who has had two dates with James Woods' obsessive New York cop, John Moss, Susan would like to go out with him a third time. The trouble is, this is a male-bonding action comedy, so she gets stood up while Moss chases a psycho killer (Stephen Lang) or, worse, hangs with Nick Lang (Fox), an obnoxious Hollywood star who's researching his next movie.
Moss really likes Susan and can't stand Lang. But buddy-cop comedy formulas being what they are, the two men wind up having a much more extensive and intimate relationship than either of them establish with the woman. Of course, the movie also gives Fox ample opportunity to do spoiled-actor schtick and lets Woods pull his trademark, angry, middle-aged-man routines to his heart's content.
In the midst of all this hyped-up play-acting, Sciorra stands out simply by acting like a real person. "In most of the scenes I have, I'm pretty much the straight guy for both Jim and Michael," she acknowledged. "So I just gave Susan a real life. It wasn't very defined in the script, so I gave her a real background. That way, she could bounce off of Michael or Jim or whatever else was going on, but could also be, as I saw her, almost like a schoolteacher. She was always trying to calm things down."
Sciorra is especially adept at injecting a no-nonsense element into cinematic chaos. That was the whole point of her striking debut performance in the 1989 independent production "True Love." An observant, realistic comedy about a Bronx Italian wedding for a marriage foredoomed to failure, the film featured Sciorra as a down-to-earth bride who realizes that her groom is never going to grow up.
In "Cadillac Man," Sciorra played the only character who made any sense while everyone else in the movie acted insane. For "Reversal," she was the ex-girlfriend of the workaholic law professor who appealed socialite Claus von Bulow's attempted murder conviction. Called back to help prepare the case, Sciorra's character was, again, an island of stability in a sea of weird and obsessive behavior.
Perhaps some of this quality can be traced to Sciorra's earliest role model. The daughter of a Cuban/Italian veterinarian and a French fashion stylist, Sciorra lived an average of four months per year on Italy's Adriatic seacoast while growing up. That's where the movie-mad girl was exposed to neorealist cinema and the movement's signature actress.
"When I was young, Anna Magnani was the only actress who existed on the face of the Earth," Sciorra said, referring to the passionate, earthy star of "Open City," "Bellissima" and numerous other Italian classics. "I thought she embodied what I wanted to express, presumptuous as that was for a 14-year-old. Her vulnerability and strength were very, very attractive to me."
Little Annabella also loved musicals. Her performing education began with dance lessons, but she was more attracted to the acting classes down the hall. By age 20, she had formed her own New York theater company.
Sciorra still lives in her hometown, which doesn't seem to have hurt her movie career. Most of the films she has made were shot in New York. And familiarity with the city's complex ethnic makeup certainly couldn't have hurt her work in "Jungle Fever," due to be released in the summer.
Spike Lee has suggested that people who were disturbed by his race-riot movie, "Do the Right Thing," are going to be triply upset by "Jungle Fever," in which Sciorra plays an Italian-American woman who has an affair with a married black architect, played by Wesley Snipes ("New Jack City," Lee's "Mo' Better Blues").
In a typically sensible manner, Sciorra dismissed the idea of "Jungle Fever" being somehow incendiary. "Don't believe the hype," she said with a laugh. "I think Spike likes to make a lot of fuss over nothing. I don't think the movie's particularly controversial. It's a love story about two people who go on this journey and try to find out more about themselves, who they are and what they want."
Sciorra's "Jungle Fever" character, Angie (no last name), is trying to break out of the strictures many tradition-oriented families impose on their daughters. "She's a woman who's gotten to a point in her life when she no longer accepts that other people are going to tell her what to do," Sciorra said. "Who to marry, who to go out with, how to live, how to dress, how to wear her hair, where to work.
"In order to stop doing that, you have to find out what it is you do want, what it is that you do like. Some people never even get to the point in life where they know, `Oh, I like that.' In the process of doing this, she meets somebody who is married, who is black. This is a problem for her family and a problem for his family. But she goes with it, explores it."
One gets the impression Sciorra long ago knew what she liked. She hopes "Jungle Fever" will be a major step toward meatier work - "We're all attracted to intelligent, interesting, driven characters," she admitted. Regardless, she's never going to be the type of actress who just fades into the background as some hero's mousey girlfriend.
"When I don't like somebody, I don't like them and I don't forget that I don't like them," Sciorra said. "And when I like somebody, I do. When I say I don't want to do something, I don't do it. I'm pretty definite about those kinds of things, I'm not very wishy-washy. I know what I like and I know what I don't like."